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Art Imitates Life: Re-enacting Prop 8 Trial on YouTube

By Obadiah Greenber

Strategic Partnerships,

In its January 13, 2010, ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the public broadcast of the proceedings in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, a U.S. District Court case challenging the constitutional validity of California's Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage. Not to be deterred, producers John Ainsworth and John Ireland from took verbatim court transcripts and first-hand accounts from bloggers present at the trial to film complete re-enactments of the proceedings for their YouTube channel. With closing arguments slated for June 16, we caught up with the producers to learn more about the project.

What is the inspiration behind MarriageTrial on YouTube?

We realized on January 13, when the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the broadcast of California’s Proposition 8 trial, that this was really significant. When the American public was actively prevented from accessing these public proceedings on YouTube — precisely because it is so accessible — well, that’s a flat-out dare. We had to fill the void. We both believe that citizens should have access to the judicial process that will likely determine the future of marriage equality for our entire country.

First video in the series:

How has YouTube helped meet the goals of your project?

There is really no better venue for 60+ hours of film. Many blogs and news media websites have embedded our videos. Because of this, our coverage has become an integral part of the media’s reporting on the trial. Ultimately, this serves our primary goal, which is to bring transparency to the court process.

We have followed behind the scenes of the trial, as well. When the Defendant-Intervenors filed Motions to Strike testimony, we were able to “red-line” the proposed strikes, guiding people to the excerpts the motion sought to exclude from the official record. In fact, our re-enactment will remain accessible, regardless of what may be redacted from the official transcript. That is an extraordinary victory for transparency in our judicial process.

YouTube’s “time seek” functionality allows us to link evidence that is introduced in the trial. Most of our viewers are active consumers of the information, many of them reading along with the transcripts and searching for further references to each witness’s testimony. Yet many others just run the videos in the background. One of our subscribers, who cranks up her speakers and cleans the house, told us she considers our channel better than the books on tape.

Has the amount of attention been a surprise?

We were astonished at the press coverage we received, from local and national media. The international press, too, took a great interest in our project. The fact that they could access our video on YouTube made it very easy to cover and most TV and radio outlets broadcast clips directly from our YouTube channel. In a way, our YouTube Channel served as an Electronic Press Kit (EPK), which saved us quite a bit of time and marketing money.

We were featured in the New York Times, then on Bill Moyers Journal on PBS. Other national and international coverage followed. These reports commented on the way we were getting this video out to the masses…that our effort signifies a new type of “citizen journalism,” not only accessible to the world, but faster and cheaper to produce than traditional forms of media broadcast.

Describe the use of captions in your videos.

A few hours after we uploaded our first chapters, automatic captions miraculously appeared! We then formatted the official court transcripts and used YouTube’s auto-alignment tool to produce accurate captions. Our actors followed the transcripts word-for-word and the captions make it clear what a great job they did. It was so easy to provide captions, which, traditionally, can be very expensive (often prohibitively) for filmmakers. The new Interactive Transcript feature is a great way for users quickly jump to specific parts of the video directly from the transcript.

Comprehension and retention of the concepts introduced by witnesses, for example, get a major boost when viewers can read along, without having to pull up the PDF transcript. And of course, the trial re-enactment is immediately available to people with hearing loss, as well as people whose native languages are not English. The auto-translate function makes these captions available in so many languages. We could never have even approached this level of accessibility as independent filmmakers.

If the ruling goes into appeals, will you continue with the re-enactments?

Yes. We plan to follow Perry v. Schwarzenegger to the U.S. Supreme Court. According to most experts, this court’s ruling will be appealed to the U.S. Ninth Circuit, regardless of whether it repeals or confirms California’s Proposition 8. From there, it will inevitably be appealed to the highest court. We expect the first appeal within six months or so, then for it to go to Washington, D.C. by next fall. We are already planning for those re-enactments. It’s a bit early to cast the Supreme Court justices just yet, but we know that is in our future.

Bottom line, this case as a landmark in America’s civil rights history. We are proud to have created this permanent record as a resource for generations to come. Its ultimate impact is tied to YouTube as an integral part in our country’s political and cultural tapestry.